Real parents discuss the challenges of college costs

In a parent's life, few responsibilities are more challenging than paying for a child's college education. From local schools to the Ivy League, there are countless colleges for a child to choose from—and each comes with a price tag.

We’ve spoken to experts about college financial aid, but also wanted to understand how real people address the challenges of paying for college. So we talked to a few parents in different stages of the process to get their perspective.

Involve your kids

From planning college visits to researching financial aid and scholarships, your future college student may need to take an active role in financing their education. For some, this might mean taking out a loan or asking children to chip in at the start.

“We made a deal with our kids to split their college expenses,” says Sara C. Olson, who has a daughter who graduated from college in 2010 and a son who is currently in college. “They are responsible for tuition, books and living expenses. We pay for housing and food.”

To cover their tuition costs, Olson’s children found jobs, and took the lead on researching and applying for scholarships and financial aid opportunities. By planning far in advance, they were able to minimize their debt and maximize the enjoyment of their college experience.

Manage expectations

"Both my husband and I come from families where we were the first generation to finish college," says Mary Beth Mohn, a marketing director with two children who have graduated college and one child about to begin their senior year of college. She believes that too many parents disregard cost when deciding where to send their children to college.

"College is an investment like other investments,” Mohn continues. “You have to realistically look at what you can afford and work within that range."

Mohn and her husband agreed to set strict guidelines on what they would be willing to pay for their children's education, and were able to pay most of the tuition without dipping into their personal savings.

"My objective was to provide unlimited emotional support and limited financial support," says Mohn.

Every high school junior who's ever received a college brochure in the mail has been tempted by some of the most prestigious—and most expensive—schools in the country. The parents we spoke to agreed that it's important to let children know from a young age what they will be able to afford—and that the most expensive school is not necessarily the best for them.

"Our youngest wanted to go to a very expensive private college and actually got a pretty sizable scholarship—but the remaining portion of the expense was still quite high,” says Mohn. Eventually, we sat her down and gave her a reality check, and told her she couldn't afford it if she wanted to graduate with a manageable debt load. She listened to our advice, thankfully, and loves [the public university] where she ended up."

Explore state options

City and state schools are often an underappreciated resource, providing high-quality educations at a reasonable cost to thousands of students across the country. Debra Stahl has four children, all of whom have graduated college.

“The three oldest went to [New York] city colleges because they are less expensive,” she says. “They were all in college at the same time. We took out all student loans for them, federal and private. We helped them pay until they got full-time jobs.”

State support doesn’t stop there. Many states offer scholarship opportunities to qualified students, which can be invaluable in helping manage the cost of tuition. This was the approach taken by Sara C. Olson’s children.

"Both have been lucky and driven enough to keep up their grades so they qualify for the Georgia Hope Scholarships," says Olson. "The program has changed a little since she went through, but basically it pays your tuition at a state college if you maintain a 3.0 or higher. Ultimately, they should be able to graduate without loans if they keep their grades above a 3.0."

Change course as needed

For J.P. Winker’s family, affording college tuition meant reassessing the schools that fit within their budget. With two children in college, he's learned firsthand that even the best plans for higher education can require adjustment. When his son began attending an expensive private college, Winker and his wife chipped in most of the money for tuition—at first.

"His results were middling," says Winker, an HR executive, "and his enthusiasm wasn't proportional to the costs. So, we agreed that a junior college would be a better option."

Their son is currently in his final semester, and has been able to get this far without taking on any debt. He works part time, and is currently paying the entirety of his tuition, while living at home to save money.

"College is an investment in time and effort, but you can avoid mortgaging your future," says Winker. "If it takes longer to finish but you can do it without debt, you may be better off."

Everyone’s financial situation and experience is different.  But if you do the research and plan ahead, you’ll find the best option for your family.